Archive for December 14, 2007

My Swan Song in Almaty

Yesterday’s talk at Ken’s university to over 20 Kazakh teachers who teach at the English Language center went very well. I started out with the limerick about the student named Besser, (see earlier blog entry.)  I asked if anyone was offended by it but then I asked these teachers if they had ever experienced the more they studied, the less they felt they knew.  Some nodded their heads.  I had experienced that phenomenon when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines over 25 years ago. 

Then I launched into how I did NOT know anything about Ukraine’s history before I went to teach in Kyiv in 1998 so I set about to educate myself when I was doing graduate studies upon my return to Minnesota in 2002.  My pursuit was to find out more about the Holodomor (Great Terror Famine), since I believe that tragic event impacted Ukraine in 1932-33, more than Chernobyl ever did in 1986.  I had interviewed six survivors of the Holodomor in Minneapolis.   

However, my qualitative research was blocked by two college professors, one in education and the other in history.  Apparently, the evils of the former Soviet Union did not fit their Marxist ideology.  So what I had hoped to be my eventual dissertation topic, didn’t turn out that way.  Hopefully I might be able to get my findings published in the Journal of Genocide Studies which I know is anathema to some “erudite” academicians.  That’s a whole ‘nother path I don’t want to go down in today’s blog. 

I told my captive audience I felt compelled to get my Ukrainian students to carry on the work I failed to do since they know the language and their own culture.  They would not need “gatekeepers” to get to their interviewees like I was fortunate to find in Minneapolis, I asked them to interview their grandparents because there is a deep, built-in trust with their own elders.  As President F.D. Roosevelt was known to say “No man and no force can abolish memory.”  Thankfully, despite the strong emotions, the stories flowed in essay after essay. 

The university in Almaty where Ken teaches now has paid for the expensive privilege of access to copyrighted, refereed journal articles for students, such as Ebscohost, J-Stor, ProQuest, etc.  We didn’t have that at our Ukrainian university so I had my students go to three different locations in Kyiv to get a connection to e-journals, thus they could e-mail pdf formatted articles to themselves for later reading.  I had told my students they would be looking at the bigger picture of the world events that framed their elders’ lives.  The important thing was to get three quotes from them relating to different subjects such as the famines of 1921, 1932-33, 1946-47.  Many talked about WWII as the Great Patriotic War and their grandfathers who were WWII vets or even Partisans (those who fought against the Nazis AND the Red Army) 

These quotes from their grandparents’ interviews were to be written into their lengthier research paper and I reminded them: “Shortened pencils are better than long memories.”  I told the teachers yesterday the same quote and I continued listing the benefits of using my “formula” of teaching history as content in an English composition class.  I told them to look up the helpful guidelines on the OWL website (Online Writing Lab) based out of Purdue University.  Another benefit besides the students having a passion to write a research paper on a subject that on the global scale had impacted their grandparents, they would learn from each other. 

Then I told the Kazakh teachers what I thought might be the obstacles or drawbacks for them initiating a project such as what I achieved with my Ukrainian composition students.  First, past Soviet mentality of “initiative is punitive” meaning that anyone who ventured beyond the set curriculum was punished 20 years ago.  Next, would be the present day reality of “it takes too much time!” finally the last complaint might be, “I don’t know the research databases!”  I said they NEED to learn them in order to help guide the students in their exploration of researching.  Also, I mentioned about the cognitive dissonance that reigns supreme in the former Soviet Union.  This catch-all term is defined as “psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes.”  There’s a whole lot of that going on especially in the older members of the former Soviet Union, the pensioners who may have lost much by being forced to put their hope in the Soviet ideal. 

Even with looking at refereed journal articles, I told the teachers that the students will find that all that is published is NOT accurate or true according to what the older generation experienced.  One girl had earlier written, “Not all materials of Ukraine’s history which I learned at school is the same which I heard from Olga.”  I told the teachers how some of my students researching the Holodomor had found an article by Wheatcroft to be way off base.  Yes, old history books piped down from Moscow and some current journal articles are not representing truthfully what really happened.  The older people know, they lived through it as did their President Nazarbayev. 

Nazarbayev’s quote from his autobiography that was ghost written by a British author said the following and I showed this on the screen:“Brezhnev described the various people of the Soviet Union shining like edges of a diamond, each with own color, language and culture.  However… ‘everything was done to ensure that the Kazakhs forgot their great history, traditions, customs and language…I will never get over the determination of the Soviet historians to fit everything into an ideological straitjacket which led them to turn even the most distant history upside down.’” 

I showed a photo of my second year class and asked the teachers why they would suppose I had failed half the class. They were a nice looking group of kids.  The teachers didn’t know, Ken gave a hint, “it starts with a ‘p’.”  One American who was in attendance said, “poor students?”  No, I said but that is close, they are poor if they “plagiarize.”  The teachers got it.  Some admitted to me later they are tired of reading boring essays about cloning, abortion, death penalty, things that are just taken off the Internet.  Talking with them afterwards I was encouraged that a few had caught the fire of what I tried to get across.  Students are not likely to steal others words if they value the words of their grandparents and have tried to find e-journal articles that relate to the thesis statement that will help them write their research paper.   

After my prescriptive talk, I showed some of the examples of my students’ powerpoint presentations they had used for the “History Matters” event from last Christmas and last spring.  The teachers sat riveted looking at the photos and pictures that told the students’ stories.  I give God all the credit because I believe I was prayed for and got through my hour long talk despite feeling under the weather. 

The following is part of an e-mail from the organizer of yesterday’s talk, Please accept my deep gratitude for your today’s presentation and your efforts to do it a successful one. I mostly appreciate its connection both to the local realia (the topic of famine is such a familiar one to all citizens of the former Soviet Union) and to the teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language. I believe the LC faculty have found some useful things for themselves to be used in their everyday practice. 

What they didn’t know at the time, my talk yesterday was my swan song. 

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